East Hartford

East Hartford Gym Using Exercise to Help Battle Parkinson's Disease

NBC Universal, Inc.

April is Parkinson’s Disease awareness month and in Connecticut, there’s a gym in East Hartford that’s helping its community “Beat PD”.

“t’s very ironic that I taught young kids how to exercise and be healthy and now I’m teaching an older population how to be healthy and exercise,” said Michelle Hespeler, founder of Beat Parkinson’s Today, Inc.

Hespeler used to be a school physical education teacher but 14 years ago she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Rather than let it take over, she took charge. Hespeler turned to exercise on her own as a way to slow the disease's progression. The solo activity soon turned into her mission.

“We're not only an exercise program, but it's a social outlet for people, too,” Hespeler said.

It's a gym-turned-community that’s turning into opportunity.

“My Parkinson’s is basically a right arm tremor and it’s stayed that way during this last year or so and I believe the exercise plays a part in that,” said Craig Thompson, a Beat PD client who was diagnosed in 2019.

Now they’re trying to prove it. Thompson and Hespeler are members of a pioneering study run by Dr. Sule Tinaz at Yale. She is using brain imaging (PET and MRI scans) to see if keeping up with high intensity workouts over time can slow the progression of the disease.

“The longer I stay off medication, the more powerful medication will be when I actually need it, so exercise is filling that void," Thompson said.

The study will span six months, requiring participants to work out three times a week, pushing their heart rate to 85% of their max. But unlike most workouts, this time they’re hoping the progress is no change at all. Brain scans taken at the start of the study and then six months later will measure whether or not the disease has progressed. All involved hope success in this initial study will encourage more research, funding, and effort in the search for a cure.

“From the beginning I said if I can stay right here and not progress, I can live the rest of my life like this,” Hespeler said. “When you go to the doctor every six months and she does the motor skills tests and she sees that you haven't changed, that's the best news in the world.”

Like many gyms, as the pandemic hit, they turned to virtual classes and they plan to keep them going. Hespeler said it has allowed them to expand their community even more.

You can find more information on Beat Parkinson’s Today here. They plan to host a fundraising golf tournament on September 17.

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